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Gay Power: Signs of Militancy in Chicago Gay Politics Before Stonewall in 1969

John D'Emilio 2007

Photograph by Timothy Stewart-Winter for the Gerber/Hart Library. Copyright (c) Timothy Stewart-Winter, 2007. All rights reserved.

This article by historian John D'Emilio was written for the Windy City Times, for OutHistory.org, and for ChicagoGayHistory.org. It was publiched in the Windy City Times on June 4, 2008. D'Emilio has won awards for his books, including Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities, and he is a professor of history and of women's and gender studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Windy City Times is running a series of D'Emilio's columns throughout the spring and summer of 2008, and these columns will be posted on OutHistory.org and ChicagoGayHistory.org, a production of the Chicago Gay History Project. Copyright (c) by John D'Emilio, 2008. All rights reserved.


“Mattachine” is not exactly a household word. To the degree that the name has come down to us, it most often registers as “oh, yeah, those are the people who tried to do something in the years before the Stonewall Riots started the real gay liberation movement.” The name itself has the ring of another era, another planet even. In those days, even the activists couldn't say “gay” or “lesbian.” They came up with names like Mattachine Society or Daughters of Bilitis, and they called themselves the “homophile movement.” What the hell, you may ask, is a “homophile”?

"Gay Power"

Imagine my surprise, then, when I came upon the phrase “Gay Power” in a 1966 newsletter of Mattachine Midwest. Sitting in one of the carrels at the Gerber/Hart Library, I was startled. Almost three years before Stonewall, this band of supposedly cautious activists in Chicago was using a phrase I associated with the most militant and radical queer activists. What was going on here?

Some of what was going on was the times: the sixties. A spirit of rebellion was all around. In June of 1966, Stokely Carmichael, a civil rights activist working in Mississippi, had used the phrase “Black Power!” in a protest march across the state. The words captured the anger, frustration, and determination of many African Americans who had experienced too much white violence and too many denials of basic human rights for way too long. Black Power came to symbolize an unwillingness to go slow. It stood for a belief that abuses of power had to be met with at least an equal and opposite force.

These sentiments and experiences weren't confined to Mississippi. In the summer of 1966, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. had come to Chicago to assist in efforts to open up the housing market in the city's segregated neighborhoods. Marchers, who included many priests and nuns, were met by the ugly violence of white mobs. It drove home the message that peaceful protest and efforts to negotiate reasonably weren't going to do the trick.

"Enticement, Entrapment, and Harassment"

That year, 1966, was a particularly bad one for the city's gay men. Issue after issue of the Mattachine Midwest newsletter reported on the latest police outrage. Chicago's police force seemed out of control. "Enticement, Entrapment, and Harassment face the homosexual every time he steps into the street," the newsletter declared.

Illinois had repealed its sodomy law in 1961, becoming the first state to decriminalize sexual behavior between consenting adults in private. But, almost as a response, police stepped up their tactics against “public” sexual activity. Reports came to Mattachine of all sorts of aggressive police practices. Cops were exposing themselves in public rest rooms in their effort to make lewd conduct arrests. Plainclothes officers in “obviously seductive attire” walked the streets that gay men cruised. They'd strike up a conversation and then, when the unsuspecting target invited the officer home, arrest him for solicitation. Or, police would hang out in gay bars and listen to the conversations around them. When they heard a pick-up line, it was all they needed to arrest bartenders for running “a disorderly house” and cart off patrons for being “inmates” of the house.

Early in 1966, newspapers in Chicago revealed that the police had a stop-and-quiz policy. If cops didn't like the look of someone, if they suspected a person even in the absence of evidence of any crime, they could stop him or her; demand name, address, and place of employment; require identification; and grill them for an explanation of their presence on the street. Black men in white neighborhoods, women alone at night wearing clothes that seemed too sexy, and queeny-looking guys: all faced stop-and-quiz procedures.

Police-state tactics

These were police-state tactics. But refusing to cooperate was a tricky matter. It could lead to an arrest for disorderly conduct or loitering. At least one gay man who didn't provide information on his place of employment was arrested on charges of “no visible means of support.” The list of potential dangers was a long one.

Mattachine Midwest tried, again and again, to set up meetings with police to discuss the department's policies. Every time, the police declined the invitation. Meanwhile, as spring and summer wore on, Mattachine's newsletter reported a continuing series of raids on gay bars and bath houses. It also reported the “sadistic” public exposure in the Chicago Tribune of the names of those arrested.

The anger of Mattachine members came through in the newsletter. “As children, we were told that the policeman was there to protect and help us,” the editor wrote. “To the homosexual citizen such thoughts are pure nonsense.” As the year wore on, Mattachine's rhetoric grew more and more heated: "Lawless police is a phrase which still aptly describes Chicago's cops ... the entrapments, shakedowns, brutality, and corruption continue ... no one is immune.” “Quit buying the right-wing line about crime in the streets and wake up to YOUR rights. Crime is as much rampant inside the police department as elsewhere.”

"a ‘Gay Power' bloc!"

An unmistakable sense that folks were fed up, that they'd had enough, jumps from the newsletter's pages each month. "It's time things were changed," the newsletter told its readers. "It's time to stop running." Mattachine urged gay men to “Hold your heads up high. Be proud of your individuality. Spend your energy fighting for equality.” Finally, as the year ended, almost in exasperation Mattachine's president, Jim Bradford, burst out: "Maybe we need to form a ‘Gay Power' bloc!"

Bradford's declaration is a good reminder that rebellion was in the air here in Chicago more than forty years ago. It was percolating from the ground up, on the streets and in the bars and in the parks, wherever queers found themselves in confrontation with the law. Stonewall was one expression of that, but it didn't need to be imported to Chicago from New York to rile people up. There were more than enough home-grown grievances to start the talk about “Gay Power.”